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Daoist Tips for the 21st Century - Harmonizing the Spirits

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 254 - May 2019

Harmonizing the Spirits

The true men of old

Slept without dreams,

Woke without worries.

Their food was plain.

They breathed deep. (Chuang tzu.)

Defining Mental Health

It’s easy to lose touch in our hurly-burly world with a sense of inner calm and stillness – the centre of your being. As I write, the UK seems to be at war with itself over Brexit – for and against positions have been taken; it’s not surprising if we all have a sense of unease and anxiety in this situation. A patient of mine told me that she was finding it hard to focus or concentrate; in her own words, she described her state of mind as being “all over the place” as she worried about the effects Brexit might have on her business.

Good mental health is often defined as an awareness of emotions – thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and with the idea of the ‘mind-body connection’ we now understand that for good mental health it is also important to take care of the physical body by eating healthily, getting enough sleep, and exercising. The mind-body approach gives us beneficial ways to cope with the stress and problems that are part and parcel of life.

Daoists see things a little differently and in their view there is not so much a mind-body connection as a totality of mind-body – they are one indivisible whole. In the Daoist view every organ in the body has a field of energy that generates thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and these fields are referred to as spirits. Here the physical body is seen as a transitory vessel –a temporary vehicle that houses these energetic fields – our spirits. Thus in Daoism, we can still call ourselves ‘healthy’ even if the physical body is diseased so long as we have harmonized these spirits.


Nature of Shen in Chinese Medicine

"Shen" also indicates the complexity of all five mental-spiritual aspects of a human being,
i.e. the Shen itself, the Hun, the Po, the Yi and the Zhi.  I translate this as "Spirit".

From Shen and Hun: The Psyche in Chinese Medicine by Giovanni Maciocia

The elemental spirits reside in the five Yin organs of the body. These include the Shen, Yi, the seven Po, the Zhi, and the three Hun all residing in the Heart, Spleen, Lungs, Kidneys and Liver. The spirits are basically fields of energy that have different emotions associated with them – joy, sympathy, grief, fear and anger. If we cling to one spirit, one emotional state, we will create an imbalance – a disharmony in our overall energy field and this will affect our spiritual growth and thus our health – both physically and mentally. It is never a good idea to avoid our emotions – balance is the key – we need to accept and allow all our feelings. However whilst being aware of and expressing our feelings, in order not to cling to any of them and create imbalance we need, at the same time, to align with what has been called the “authentic cultivation of self. Not of self for self, but of self in order to be fit for what you are from nature and what you are to become from destiny.”[1] 

A healthy mental (and physical) life is thus one where we become aware of and connect with our spirits (our emotional states) and harmonise them by aligning with our authentic self –what we “are to become from destiny”. In other words when we centre ourselves we calm our thoughts and feelings and thus attain a deep sense of confidence in our innate abilities. This can be defined as a truly healthy mental state – one that will enable us to handle whatever life brings along.

A Healthy Life is a Centred Life

This ‘authentic self’ – our centre point – is something that is unconscious to us at birth, but life gives us the opportunity to allow it to flower. Our lives may well be filled with stressors, we may well feel stressed but all of these challenges are opportunities to align with the authentic self, to centre ourselves, and re-establish our mental and physical wellbeing. If we cannot align ourselves with our centre point our spirits will be in conflict, energy will be drained, our health affected. If we are already unwell by aligning ourselves with the authentic self we will have a sense of mental wellbeing –even if our physical body is diseased. The question then is – how do we align with this authentic self – in other words how do we centre ourselves so that we may feel well in our spirits and be who we are supposed to be?

In Daoism cultivating centredness is accomplished by connecting with Wuji. Wuji is the centre point within us wherein lies all stillness and all potentiality – the seed and blueprint of our authentic, innate physical mental and spiritual selves. It is a state without polarity similar to the state of the universe before the big bang. Wuji is a state of emptiness potent with energy that needs manifesting. “Within the seat of human consciousness lies this stillness containing dormant information...the blueprints....(of)our congenital nature. When we are born, our congenital nature shines forth but as we begin to age and interact with other people our consciousness becomes distorted and the congenital nature becomes buried deep within us.“[2]

The aim of Daoist practise is to find our way back to the state of Wuji (our centre point) so that our spirits lose the distortion they have acquired through the challenges that life presents. By entering a state of Wuji and cultivating stillness we may harmonize our spirits and thus rediscover the authentic self within. Practically speaking this means that instead of rushing around over reacting to the vagaries of life (such as Brexit!) we make time to centre ourselves and find stillness within. In this way, we will reconnect with a deep sense of confidence in our innate abilities – our authentic self. This will then enable us to handle what life brings along.

Wuji Standing Meditation
Wuji Standing Meditation

The Way to Wuji – Standing and Staring

My patient decided to stop worrying about Brexit and instead took time to do the standing meditation below – doing nothing once or twice a day. By doing nothing we cultivate stillness and so centre ourselves and harmonize the spirits. She found that exercising and eating healthily along with having acupuncture also helped to decrease her anxiety levels, but practising this meditation regularly deeply rested and nourished her spirits within. The way to Wuji is to practise doing nothing, for Wuji is the stillness before movement and thus this meditation helped to bring her to that still centre point. In this way, she could return to her daily life with a renewed sense of purpose, confidence and wellbeing – ready to tackle whatever Brexit might bring!

When we stand totally still we are not concerned with breathing, posture or concentration, although all these things will improve as a result of this practise. Do not strain to gain any sort of result; simply practise quietly standing daily. Start with a few minutes each time, and gradually increase the time you stand up to 30-40 minutes. If you are unable to stand then sit comfortably.

Stand with your feet parallel and shoulder width apart

Feel as if your head is attached to a string pulling it gently upwards

Look straight ahead in a relaxed fashion – no need to close your eyes

Breathe gently in and out through your nose

Press the tip of your tongue lightly against the roof of your mouth behind your upper teeth

Lips and teeth come together lightly

Straighten up and stretch the back of your neck with your lower jaw slightly tucked in

Relax your shoulders, allow your arms and hands to hang loosely

Relax and loosen your hips

Keep your knees in line with your toes

The soles of your feet, heels, and toes all remain in contact with the ground

Now simply stand....Allow thoughts to come and go whilst standing and staring....

By cultivating stillness you may enter a state of Wuji – simply doing nothing where your spirits are harmonized and in this way, by centering yourself, you can truly relax into being yourself – able to handle whatever comes along.


1. Rochat de la Vallée, Elisabeth and Claude Larre. The Seven Emotions: Psychology and Health in Ancient China. p 15. Cambridge, UK: Monkey Press. 1996.

2. Damo Mitchell, Daoist Nei Gong. Singing Dragon. 2011.


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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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